Sharmyn McGraw knows what it’s like to have a body that people envy. For most of her adult life, the 5-foot, 4-inch former flight attendant was a lean size 2. No more. McGraw, 48, now weighs 189 pounds, down from a one-time high of 250 pounds.
It’s not like McGraw stuffed her face with super-size-me burgers and fries. She’s sick. In 2000, she was diagnosed with a rare condition called Cushing’s disease, caused by a benign pituitary tumor. One of the hallmarks of Cushing’s is massive weight gain, particularly in the trunk, face and back.
Though surgery to remove the tumor was successful, McGraw still suffers with severe hormonal imbalances, making weight loss and weight maintenance difficult. And it’s those extra pounds — or more accurately, people’s perception of those extra pounds, she says — that can be as tough to deal with as any disease or treatment that causes weight gain.
McGraw knows all about indignities. She got dumped by a personal trainer after she couldn’t shed pounds fast enough. A doctor told her she could lose weight if she was locked in a closet for a week with only water to drink. Even well-meaning friends could be annoying as they told her about the latest-greatest diet.
'Fat is fat'
“I know how people look at me now, and how people looked at me when I was fit,” says McGraw, who runs a pituitary and brain tumor patient support group in Santa Monica, Calif. “The bias out there against heavy people is incredible. Having an illness doesn’t matter. In people’s eyes, fat is fat.”
“You would think that illness would be somewhat protective (against bias),” says obesity researcher Marlene Schwartz, deputy director of The Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity at Yale University. “But (as a society) we like to assign fault. We think it’s so easy to be healthy, and therefore, not fat.”
Because obesity and all of its co-morbidities like heart disease, stroke, diabetes, some cancers, and asthma, to name a few, rack up big health care bills (according to a 2009 CDC study, America now spends as much as $147 billion annually on the direct and indirect costs of obesity) some researchers fear this bias might get worse as health care reform plays out.
“There is some evidence that shows that for whatever reason weight bias is increasing,” says obesity researcher Robert Carels of Bowling Green University in Ohio. His own research published in the journal Eating and Weight Disorders shows a “strong level of contempt” for the obese, especially among people who believe the weight is highly controllable. “There’s a feeling of why should I have to pay for them (the obese), if they can do something about their weight,” says Carels. “As a society we have a strong, pull-yourself-up-by-the-bootstrap mentality, and the overweight are the targets.”
You don’t have to tell that to Nellie Sabin, 56, of Cape Cod, Mass. About 15 years ago, Sabin developed severe migraines, which her doctor treated with a long-term course of steroids. Unfortunately, the steroids produced a massive weight gain of 100 pounds and rebound headaches that lasted about five days.
“I was a complete mess,” says Sabin, a book editor and writer. “I thought I was going to die.” The long-term steroid treatment caused Sabin to develop a hormone disturbance and she also developed severe arthritis in her back, making it difficult to exercise. “Unless you have experienced it, you can't imagine the prejudice and shame associated with being fat, even if it isn't your fault,” says the 5-foot, 10-inch Sabin, who once weighed 155 pounds but now weighs more than 300 pounds.
The good news is that Sabin has the full support of her husband and children. The bad news is that it’s tough to get respect from other people. “Everyone assumes I’m fat because I eat Snickers bars for breakfast. They also assume I’m stupid and have no willpower,” says Sabin. “At this point I would rather not have to meet people than have to explain I’m not a moron and I’m fat for medical reasons.”
Ashamed of own prejudice
Liz Gabor of Cleveland, Ohio, used to be one of those people that thought the obese were an easy target for loathing. That is until she became a self-described “fat girl,” after gaining 60 pounds in about 18 months despite eating well and exercising. The diagnosis: insulin resistance.
“I thought that was a disease that couch potatoes got, so I was embarrassed about everything, and it didn’t help that people looked at me and thought I was bingeing on chips and ice cream all night,” says Gabor, whose weight jumped from 125 pounds to 185 pounds.
Gabor believes her “time of fatness,” is payback for her years of judging the obese. “I think weight gain, no matter what the cause, can be really complex for some people. But I think I’m even more embarrassed about the way I thought about obesity. It’s very shameful.”
That’s not to say that Gabor, McGraw and Sabin are at peace with their bodies. They want the pounds gone. And the sooner, the better. In the interim though, they are just trying to get through the day.
“I think society makes it tough for everyone to accept the way they look,” says McGraw. “When I was a size 2, I probably thought I could have had a better body. My gosh, that’s really kind of funny now.”
Joan Raymond is a freelance journalist whose work has appeared in Newsweek, the New York Times, MORE and Woman's Day.